While poor, Yiddish speaking Jewish peasants from Russia and the Pale of Settlement were swelling the tobacco factories and rowhouse shuls of South Philly, second generation German Jews, the owners of department stores and textile mills and movie studios (and the tobacco factories)–and other industrialists–were building a new redoubt of the nouveau riche along the the broad streets and wide avenues of North Philly.
In that Gilded Age, North Broad Street above Spring Garden became the exclusive, and as it turns out ephemeral, haunt of these newly super-rich, a place of ridiculous opulence and splendor. These robber baron tycoons, rejected and scorned by the blue bloods of Rittenhouse Square (and increasingly, the Main Line), built their uptown fortress of gold and high tariffs at the grand intersection of Ridge Avenue, Fairmount Avenue, and North Broad Street. And once Peter Widener and George Elkins’ trolley lines were extended, the new money kept expanding north and west.
The apotheosis of this movement was Oscar Hammerstein’s Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar. But in truth these robber barons sought a complete city-within-a-city, with their own institutions, organizations, and businesses so that they would never have to prostrate themselves before a Cadwalader, Ingersoll, or Hopkinson. And so they built their own banks. The Northwestern National Bank was formed in 1882, so named because its first location was at the Northwestern edge of this new kingdom, the corner of Ridge and Girard Avenues. This still stands today as the Smith Chapel Baptist Church.
The nouveau riche, of course, kept moving north, following their gods Widener and Elkins up Broad Street to the wooded glens and pastures of Cheltenham Township (really, who needs the Main Line?). And so the neighborhood around Ridge and Girard gave over to factory foremen and clerks and skilled machinists and the domestic life of the–gauche!–emerging middle class. By this time the Northwestern National Bank was the sixth largest bank in the city. Its officers knew there was money to be made in those 16 foot castles full of clothes and furnishings from Wanamakers and so they bought the corner of Broad and Fairmount for $100,000. Their bank would live on through the automotive age.
The Northwestern folks commissioned architect Phillip Merz to design a monumentally impressive bank building that would stand out on a corner that already boasted such great architecture as the Lorraine Hotel, Park Theatre, and American Trust Loan and Guarantee Investment Company. Following the trend of neoclassical architecture that was so popular at the time–new money must look old, now isn’t that the story here?–Merz gave them a 50′ x 90′ stone monolith. It was built in 1918 and boasted Anti-Hydro, a high tech waterproofing concrete, for its foundation. It cost $200,000–over $2 million today.
The new location was such a success that only 11 years later, the bank built an addition designed by prolific architect Clarence E. Wunder. This addition is what makes the Northwestern National Bank unique–it extends the building along Ridge Avenue, creating a bent neoclassical wall that dominates the 1400 block and causes the building to have frontage on three different streets, Broad, Fairmount and Ridge. The addition more than doubled the size of the bank, pushing it up to 21,448 square feet.
As North Broad progressed from auto-friendly to auto-centric and most of its gilded-age businesses disappeared, the Northwestern Bank remained successful. In 1949, the Northwestern National Bank became the first bank in the city to have a drive-thru teller window. Now long gone, it was oval-shaped and walled of foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete. It was accessed by an underground passage and spiral staircase that led up to the teller’s inch-thick glass window.
On September 10, 1954, Northwestern merged with another old bank formed by the new money tycoons, the Broad Street Trust Company. The Broad and Fairmount building, which originally had “Northwestern National Bank” emblazoned on all sides, now had a new name. New lettering reading “Broad Street Trust Co.” was installed on panels covering the old lettering. The panels are still visible on the Broad Street side of the building today.
On August 2nd, 1965, the Broad Street Trust Company merged with Montgomery County Bank and formed a new bank called the Continental Bank of Philadelphia. The old Northwestern Bank building would become one of its many regional branches. More new panels were installed over the old lettering stating the building’s new name. Over the next two decades, the neighborhood became infested with abandoned buildings, empty lots, and drug dens.
In the early 1980s, Continental Bank of Philadelphia became embroiled in a home loan discrimination scandal. The blowback from the bad publicity hurt business and forced Continental (at this point merged with two other banks and called Continental Bancorp) to become a subsidiary of the Edison, New Jersey based Midlantic Bank in 1986. The Continental branches would retain their name until 1994, but the branch occupying the old Northwestern Bank was closed by then.
Through the 1990s, the building sat crumbling. People for People Inc, a faith-based community organization grown from the Greater Exodus Baptist Church next door, bought the place on January 8th, 1997 for $1 and named it the Lusk Building (after People for People’s founder, Reverend Doctor Herbert H. Lusk II). They made improvements to the structure and were able to open two banks inside, the People for People Community Credit Union and a PNC Bank branch. Ironically, PNC had absorbed Midlantic Bank in 1996, so in a way, the Northwestern National Bank still operates out of the building.
The bank’s current state is mediocre. The exterior structure is still relatively intact but the interior is completely mangled. The banking floor originally occupied most of the building and consisted of a large well-appointed room with a very high ceiling. Nowadays, the building’s three office floors take up the entire structure, squeezing the banking floor of the PNC branch into an area so small that the tellers sit in a separate room and communicate with customers through a closed circuit TV system, operating like a human ATM. The large windows that once graced the facade are walled up. And part of the paneling over the old Northwestern National Bank lettering has fallen off, revealing a small part of the building’s original name.
This last November, the Lusk Building was put on the Save Our Sites organization’s 2011 List of Endangered Sites. Included on the same list was the original Northwestern National Bank at Ridge and Girard. With attention recently being drawn to the Divine Lorraine and other development along North Broad, the Gilded Age redoubt is on the brink of return.